Temple Prof Wrongly Charged With Spying Warns: “It Can Happen to You”

He’s one of a number of Chinese-American scientists some critics say the government has been racially profiling in espionage cases. He told his tale to the Chronicle of Higher Education.


Temple and DOJ photos, Shutterstock.

Got your tinfoil hat tied on tightly? The Chronicle of Higher Education has published an in-depth look (paywall) at the fiasco that had the federal government leveling charges of selling state secrets against the head of Temple University’s physics department, Xi Xiaoxing. You may recall that government agents seized the professor from his home at gunpoint last May:

The federal agents came at dawn, a dozen, dressed in bulletproof vests. They arrested Mr. Xi at gunpoint, like a “violent criminal,” he says, as his wife and two daughters — one in middle school, the other home from college — looked on. They searched the Xis’ house, carting away boxes of material: the family’s computers, years of tax returns and bank statements, an old cellphone, every USB stick in the house.

The indictment laid out the charges: The professor, prosecutors claimed, had revealed blueprints for a sophisticated, proprietary piece of laboratory equipment, a device known as a pocket heater, to colleagues in China “in an effort to help Chinese entities become world leaders in the field of superconductivity.” In return, he had sought “lucrative and prestigious appointments” in China. As evidence, authorities cited four emails that Mr. Xi sent between May and December 2010.

Xi, a naturalized U.S. citizen, is one of the world’s foremost researchers on “superconducting thin films, which can carry electricity without resistance at very low temperatures,” according to the article. At the time of his arrest, his colleagues were puzzled, since, as one noted, there seemed to be no “industrial or strategic importance” to his work, which is highly theoretical and years from any practical application. And before his arrest, he’d been entrusted with hundreds of thousands of dollars in government grants from NASA and other federal agencies. Still, the government accused Xi, who grew up in China and during the Cultural Revolution cleaned pigsties in the countryside, of selling the blueprints for that heater.

After months of investigation and a mountain of legal bills, Xi is back chairing the physics department at Temple; all the charges against him were dropped on September 11th. But he’s not alone: He’s one of a number of Chinese-American scientists whom some critics say the government has been racially profiling in espionage cases, as ties between China and the U.S. expand and contract. The government has yet to offer an apology for the nightmare it put him through to Xi, who warns his adoptive countrymen: “It can happen to you.”

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